White House Announces Leading Practices

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CTO Aneesh Chopra blogged an announcement yesterday laying out the Administration’s next steps after the April 7th milestone.

The Adminstration’s transparency initiative, though, was designed to fail well. This isn’t the same old OMB memo. If it were, we’d all be calling it OMB Memo M10-6, its real name.

There are several announcements here packed into one.   Chopra announced the updated White House dashboard, and set a May 1st goal for a White House evaluation of agencies’ plans.  He also invited everyone to dig into open government plans, and suggest improvements and offer feedback.  This is an important invitation, and one we’re going to continue to take advantage of.  The plans from April 7th can really be a version 1.0 if they get updated and improved, which takes effort and feedback.

Third, and the focus of this post, Chopra announced “leading practices” guidelines, that set out goals beyond the minimum goals defined in the Directive.  I’m happy to have had a small role in shaping the policies the Open Government Working Group created, which basically means discussing ideas and approaches for defining excellence in transparency.

These guidelines are a big deal.  I wrote yesterday about how it’s difficult, right now, to distinguish between meaningless bureaucratic language (on one hand), and authentic, legitimate planning as it occurs within a huge institution.  Are agencies stalling, or are they bringing about change in the ways they know how?

These leading practices make that distinction matter less.  Even if some agencies don’t take the Directive seriously, these guidelines were built to move.  And by move, I mean forward.  The Directive, and the enthusiasm it has created among the agency officials who have caught the transparency bug, could just peter out, if the administration issued the Directive and said “Great! We’re done!”

That’s clearly not what is happening, however.  In addition to the day one Memo, Executive Orders, multiple Memoranda, the public consultation, the Directive, and agency plans, agency officials are being encouraged to think of ways that the Directive hasn’t yet gone far enough, and then those results are being published on WhiteHouse.gov.

We’re certainly disappointed in the way that many agencies’ plans complied with the Directive’s data-related requirements.  The Adminstration’s transparency initiative, though, was designed to fail well.  This isn’t the same old OMB memo.  If it were, we’d all be calling it OMB Memo M10-6, its real name.  (That’s not an overstatement, many of us refer to A-130 as though it were a fun nickname.)  Instead, the “OGD” (Open Government Directive) is shorthand for what is, to me, several hundred conversations, plans, meetings, processes, and official documents.  Most importantly, it’s not something that has ended.

Criticism of the Directive, and its results, aren’t met with a “well, you should know we Worked Hard on this, and have some complex things to balance!”  Instead, they’re met with “that’s what we’re looking for, more please.”  That’s a very important difference.  Defensiveness results from a static process, one that is considered done.  Welcoming criticism, though, is the hallmark of an evergreen work in process, where getting credit isn’t as important as getting to the right answers, no matter how long it takes.

These leading practices could be interpreted as an admission that the Directive’s requirements don’t go far enough.  And in a way, that’s true.  But it’s also by design.  Technology has changed what’s possible quickly enough that no one has all the right answers.  Making the government’s work truly public (read: online) will take laws, regulations, guidance, procedures, and experimentation (in order from strict to loose), all backed up with lawsuits, criminal penalties, admonishments, encouragement, recognition, and prizes (from negative to positive).

By pursuing an evaluation process that focuses on the positive, the White House is, in part, choosing to pair the public carrot with the private stick, as is to be expected for government reform efforts.  They’re also giving up on any claims to having all the best answers out of the box.  In place of that, they get something more important — a process that, if they continue to pursue it openly, will lead most reliably to the best answers.

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